Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

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irishJust a quick post to wish you all a happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’ve come to understand from a few of my Irish friends that the Irish soda bread we eat here in America is not in the slightest bit authentic. Some say the batter would most definitely not contain butter, some say no way to the white flour and sugar, and all say definitely not to the caraway seeds. But this is the Irish soda bread I know well from a childhood spent eating it dipped in milky sugary tea every March, so it’s the one I’ll be providing you with a recipe for today. This soda bread is really more of a skillet-scone (is that a thing?). The sweetness of the sugar and currants is grounded by the caraway seeds, it is light and airy, a little bit tart from the buttermilk —it’s just really a delight.

Not-So-Irish Skillet Soda Bread
Makes 1 10-inch skillet’s-worth

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted (half a standard stick) plus more for greasing skillet
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 Tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 3 tablespoons currants (or any dried fruit)

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit. Grease a 10-inch cast-iron skillet (or any oven safe skillet) and line it with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together your buttermilk, beaten eggs, and 2 Tablespoons of your melted butter (reserve the rest). Mix together wet and dry until smooth, being very careful not to mix too much (this bread will get tough quickly the more you mess with it). Fold in currants and caraway seeds, pour batter into skillet, brush with reserved butter and bake until golden and firm to the touch (40-50 minutes).

Since you’re here…
These are a few of my favorite books by Irish authors:
The Revolutions Trilogy by John Banville (includes Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and The Newton Letter)
The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits By Emma Donoghue
Outside History By Eavan Boland (a collection of poems)
Christine Falls
and The Silver Swan By Benjamin Black (John Banville’s mystery/thriller pen name)
The Gathering
By Anne Enright
Good Behaviour
By Molly Keane
Murphy
By Samuel Beckett
The Sea By John Banville

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone, now go drink some beers!

The Dog Stars Whole Roasted Branzino with Herb Butter

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I have never been a fan of post-apocalyptic literature. The world, to me, is terrifying and confusing enough on a daily basis without all of the fire and brimstone, collapsing buildings and dwindling food supplies. In college I tried reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road because I was smitten with a boy who said it was his favorite book. “The Road” he told me, “is full of adventure and friendship and humor. It changed my entire view of what it means to be a man.”

We were eating comically large burgers at Paul’s on St Mark’s Place and talking, in the earnest and embarrassing way that college students do, about books that we really felt defined us. I remember thinking vaguely, as he wiped melted American cheese from his mouth, that I would be a little bit mortified if anyone was eavesdropping on our conversation.

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When our burgers were finished I walked over to the bookstore. The Road had just come out a few months earlier and was still being prominently displayed in the front window of the shop. The boy at the counter shuddered while ringing it up— “You’re brave for this one, girly” he told me, pushing it into my hands so eagerly it was as if the cover was burning his. IMG_5754

I made it through about twenty pages on my subway ride home and by the time I walked in my front door and looked in the mirror my face was ashen and my knees felt like jell-o. After fifty pages I was in a cold sweat and had to tuck the book into a drawer in the other room before trying to fall asleep. Adventure? Friendship? Humor? Had he even read this book? I felt betrayed.

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A few days later I was invited over to the boy’s apartment for dinner. I was building up the nerve to tell him that I couldn’t make it past fifty pages of his favorite book when I noticed a stack of various editions of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road sitting on his coffee table. Opening one up I saw that it was absolutely covered with underlines and stars, notes and exclamations written in scratchy boy handwriting—it looked not unlike all of my favorite books. It suddenly occurred to me that I had tortured myself with The Road for no reason at all.

Loving post-apocalyptic literature is one thing—I can even chalk forgetting the name of your favorite novel up to first-date-jitters, but allowing Jack Kerouac to define for you what it means to be a man is, for me, an issue. That dinner was our last.

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I gave my unfinished copy of The Road to my across-the-hall neighbor and didn’t touch another post-apocalyptic novel until a friend of mine gave me a copy of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars a couple of months ago. She, and many of the reviews I read, described it as “The Road but with hope,” which is probably why it took me so long to pick it up–I was terrified of reading anything resembling The Road. When I finally did crack it open though, I was not sorry at all.

IMG_5779In sparse and heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose Heller tells the story of a man named Hig who has lost everything to a superflu that wiped out ninety percent of the human race. He lives in the hangar of an abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a man named Bangley who seems to enjoy the cruelty and violence that surviving in a post-apocalyptic world allows him to enact. What sets The Dog Stars apart from other novels of its kind is Hig himself. The Dog Stars is more about what it means, at the very core, to be human than about what happens when “civilized” society crumbles. IMG_5791

What really set this novel apart for me, though, was the food. Normally in novels of this kind there is very little, if any food, and what there is is hardly ever appetizing. The food in The Dog Stars on the other hand is mouth-watering. Hig plants beans, tomatoes, potatoes, eats venison heart, he cooks catfish with dandelion salad with basil, makes tea from a jar of summer flowers, wild strawberry, black raspberry and mint, he eats shepherd’s pie dripping with butter and drinks pitcher after pitcher of cold milk. The most powerful, most prevalent food scenes in the book, though, are ones related to fishing—trout-fishing specifically.

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By the third sentence of the novel Hig has already told you that he “used to love to fish for trout more than almost anything…If I ever woke up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone every one. Brookies, rainbows, cutthroats, cutbows, every one. The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The titmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove. Sad but. Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.” IMG_5802

The most poignant memories Hig has of his wife, Melissa, are of her fishing for trout with him—how “she didn’t have the distance and accuracy in her cast but she could think more like a trout than probably anyone alive.” Hig fishes before disaster strikes, he fishes when the flu hits, when Melissa dies, he fishes with Jasper in the mountains, salts his catches on flat stones and “pull[s] out the skeleton from the tail up, unzipping the bones.”

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In the summertime when I was a kid, my dad would wake me up while it was still dark outside and we would go fishing for sea bass in the cold black of the Atlantic ocean. It was thrilling, sneaking around the bedroom trying to get dressed as quietly as possible while my sisters slept. My dad waited in the kitchen where the smell of newspapers and coffee and aftershave hung heavy, the nighttime sounds of crickets still creaking through the window screens. After fishing we always went to a breakfast place called Arno’s and ordered enormous stacks of buttermilk pancakes and tiny griddles of corned beef hash. At first this was what I looked forward to most about these fishing excursions. The casting and the waiting and the shivering were, in the beginning, just a means to an end, but eventually I grew to love the pre-pancake ritual, too. I never became a great fisherwoman but I learned volumes about patience and silence.

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Lemon and herb-stuffed fish painted by my amazing friend, Marion Bolognesi (http://www.marion-b.com/)

One morning I caught a horseshoe crab by accident and reeled it in, scrambling and scratching against my hook. I had only ever seen dried up pieces of them on the shore and seeing one in all of its prehistoric glory gave me pause. It was as if the world suddenly threw back its hood and revealed just how tremendously old and sturdy it was and how easily it would continue to thrive once we are, all of us, gone.

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Recipe
The Dog Stars Whole Roasted Fish with Herb Butter
Serves 2
When I went to the market yesterday I lingered over the trout for a good five minutes before the man behind the counter got impatient with me and demanded I make up my mind. It didn’t seem right to cook trout for this book, even despite it being mentioned so many times throughout. I ended up buying branzino instead, but trout would certainly work for this recipe, as would just about any fish.

  • 1 1 ½ pound whole trout, branzino, or any fish you prefer, gutted and scaled
  • ¼ pound unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
  • 4 sprigs each thyme, parsley, dill, rosemary
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste

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Directions:

This herb butter freezes well and will stay good for at least a month (refrigerated about a week and a half). It’s a great thing to have on hand to make anything fancier (bread, pasta, roasted vegetables) and also a good way to put wilting herbs to use rather than throw them away.

Place your butter in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Finely chop your picked herbs and garlic and add them to the butter. Add 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper and beat until well-mixed. Scoop the butter onto a sheet of plastic wrap and roll it tightly into a tube-shape. Refrigerate until set, about 40 minutes.

IMG_5826Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees F. Rinse your fish and pat it dry. Salt the inside and outside of the fish well and place it in a shallow baking dish (I had to cut the tail off of mine so that it would fit). Cut half of your herb butter into disks and place the rest in the fridge (you’ll only be using half). Stuff butter disks inside of the fish and top with lemon slices. Do the same on the outside of the fish. Salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Add about 1 cup of dry white wine to the baking dish and cover with tinfoil. Place in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove tinfoil and roast 7-10 more minutes. The meat should release from the bones and you should be able to “unzip” the fish and enjoy the meat easily.

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“The Secret History” Wine-Braised Leg of Lamb with Wild Mushrooms

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IMG_5720When I was a little kid one of my (many) strange and irrational fears was that someday every combination of musical notes would be exhausted and that new music would cease to exist. As a grown-up this is a hard thing for me to explain, which is probably why it was so hard for my parents to understand when I came to them with it. They thought it was just another quirk of mine, and I suppose it sort of was, but I was genuinely terrified. It was in my second year of taking violin lessons that this anxiety emerged, learning to read music had somehow sparked it. My older sister was in her early teens and heavily into radio pop and hip hop and I took their repetitive tunes and constant samplings of older songs as proof that my fear was being realized.

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lamb breakdown at work

In the evenings after school I would spend hours playing records from my dad’s collection, which spanned the entirety of our living room, finding comfort in The Smiths and The English Beat, The Pogues and Dusty Springfield while I did my homework. By the end of the night, though, I always felt that familiar dread creeping in. It’s already all been done—I thought when I heard Keith Moon’s drumming—how could anyone ever do any better than this?

Lately, I’ve felt a similar anxiety creeping in. What if someday all of my creative energy just runs out? What if eventually there simply isn’t anything left to write about? What if it’s all already been done?

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What I’m trying to tell you is that I am in the midst of the worst writer’s block I have ever experienced. My fingernails are bitten to the quick, I’m self-medicating with entire loaves of bread, I’m a nervous wreck. It’s sort of a shameful thing to admit, especially when one has just signed a book deal, but in most cases saying the things that you are most afraid of out-loud usually somehow makes them seem less scary (unless you finally muster enough courage to say it to your violin teacher and she just stares at you with her mouth agape). In order to admit that you have writer’s block you also have to admit that you are a writer. This is a terrifying declaration. It feels heavy and self-indulgent and pressure-filled in a way that saying “I’m a butcher” doesn’t.

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The other night over beers I admitted this to a friend. I’m sure she was expecting a much simpler answer to her question of “How’s the writing going?” We ordered more beers (this helped Hemingway, right?) and my friend started telling me about all of the famous writers she had heard about who had suffered terrible creative blocks throughout their careers. The conversation eventually lead to Donna Tartt, whose alleged writer’s block has generated massive amounts of media attention and intrigue since she published The Secret History in 1992. The book was an instant bestseller and people hungrily awaited her next book. Eleven years passed in the interim between The Secret History and The Little Friend and people started talking. Rumors of writer’s block-induced breakdowns abounded.

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I had never read any Donna Tartt, I think her name always lead me to believe that her books would be of the supermarket romance variety (not that there’s anything wrong with those). My friend urged me to pick up The Secret History, so the next day I went to the bookstore and by the end of the night I had torn through almost the entire book. It’s no surprise to me that Tartt had to take eleven years between this book and her next. The anxiety of others’ influence is one thing, but I imagine the anxiety of your own influence is quite another. This book must have been a daunting one to follow up.

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The book’s narrator, Richard, is reminiscent of Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisted—a boy running from his humble beginnings in hopes of making a much more interesting life for himself. He leaves Plano and arrives at the fictional Hampden college in Vermont, where he becomes infatuated with a group of five misfit classics students who have isolated themselves from the masses. Henry, Bunny, Charles, Camilla and Francis spend their days studying ancient Greek with their charming and enigmatic professor, Julian, drinking massive amounts of alcohol and spending money faster than their parents can make it. After a few short weeks Richard infiltrates the group and quickly finds himself in way over his head.

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Things come to a boiling point when Henry, the group’s leader, decides that they have to kill Bunny because he knows a secret that could destroy them all (this is given away in the very first sentence, so I haven’t ruined anything). Henry begins experimenting with poisonous wild mushrooms, trying to determine how many it would take to kill a person Bunny’s size. That night, Richard is invited to Professor Julian’s house for dinner, and the reader, unsure at this point of who in this dysfunctional group can be trusted, watches as Julian presents him with a plate of Henry’s wild mushrooms.

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There was roasted lamb, new potatoes, peas with leeks and fennel; a rich almost maddeningly delicious bottle of Chateau Latrou. I was eating with better appetite than I had in ages when I noticed that a fourth course had appeared, with unobtrusive magic, at my elbow: mushrooms. They were pale and slender-stemmed, of a type I had seen before, steaming in a red wine sauce that smelled of coriander and rue.
“Where did you get these?” I said
“Ah. You’re quite observant,” he said, pleased. “Aren’t they marvelous? Quite rare. Henry brought them to me.” (240)

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The day I finished the book I got an email from the friend who had recommended it. It was a press release stating that Donna Tartt would be publishing a new novel with Little, Brown this year. It will be her third book in more than twenty years. When asked what took her so long Tartt brushed off the rumors of writer’s block and unapologetically and succinctly answered, “Writing takes time.”

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Ingredients:
Serves 6

  • 1 3-pound bone-in leg of lamb steak
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1 750 ml bottle red wine (I used Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • 1 pound dried mushrooms (whichever you like, I used lobster, morels and porcinis)
  • 5 carrots
  • 1 pound fingerling or red potatoes
  • 4 small shallots
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 1 bunch rosemary
  • Any variety of wild mushrooms (I used hedgehog, yellow-foot chanterelles and maitake)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

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Directions:
Salt and pepper your leg of lamb generously and allow it to sit outside of the refrigerator until it reaches room temperature—about 40 minutes. Heat a medium skillet until very hot and sear the lamb steaks for 3 minutes on each side. Place leg of lamb in a dutch oven and cover with chicken stock, red wine, dried mushrooms, rosemary, thyme (reserve a few sprigs for cooking the fresh mushrooms), carrots and potatoes. Mince your garlic and shallots and, in the same pan you seared off your leg steaks, cook them over medium heat with 2 tablespoons of butter until translucent. Throw them in the dutch oven with the rest of the ingredients and add 4 tablespoons of butter. Salt and pepper liberally and put the entire thing in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone.

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Strain the lamb, reserving the brasing liquid. Pick meat, potatoes, carrots and dried mushrooms out and set them aside. Place braising liquid in a medium saucepan and simmer until reduced by half—this should thicken it into a sauce. While your sauce is reducing put the remaining two tablespoons of butter in a sautee pan and add all of your fresh mushrooms and reserved thyme sprigs. Salt and pepper liberally and cook over medium heat until the mushrooms are crisp at the edges and have released most of their liquid. To serve, spoon the mushrooms into a serving bowl, top with lamb, carrots and potatoes and cover in red wine sauce. Good bread will be necessary for mopping up every last bit.

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“The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” Red Flannel Hash

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IMG_5638 Full disclosure: it was the red flannel hash that lead me to Pam Houston, and not the other way around. Rebecca, one of my favorite customers at the butcher shop always comes up to the counter with a basket full of eggs, beets, and potatoes and asks for a pound of thick-cut bacon. It’s pretty easy to imagine what could be done with bacon, potatoes and eggs, but the beets always threw me. When I finally asked her what she was making her response was one of the loveliest food names I have ever heard—“Red flannel hash.” The name alone could warm you right up.IMG_5567 I had never heard of red flannel hash before, which is surprising considering I am a diehard fan of all forms of breakfast hash. As a kid I went through a Libby’s canned corned beef hash phase so intense my mom feared that I would die of salt poisoning. I wanted it on everything—mashed potatoes, chicken, broccoli. I looked for corned beef hash at every restaurant we went to and ordered it stuffed inside an american cheese omelet with a side of buttered white toast. I’m not proud of any of this, but we’re all friends here, right?

IMG_5569 I told Rebecca that I’d never heard of red flannel hash before and she said that she had learned about it from Pam Houston’s short story “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had.” I knew there was a reason I liked this woman. Even more surprising than the fact that I had never heard of red flannel hash before is the fact that I had never read any Pam Houston. When Waltzing the Cat (the collection of stories that includes “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had”) was first published in 1998 my older sister bought a copy of it at a Barnes and Noble because the boots on the cover looked like her Doc Martins.
IMG_5585Coffeehouse culture was still relatively new in 1998 and taking your notebook to a coffee shop to scribble slam poetry or curling up with your impressive, existential novel next to a soy chai was all the rage. The neighborhood Starbuck’s was the closest thing we had to a cozy, intimate coffee shop and my sister used to take her copy of Waltzing the Cat there and stay for hours, drawing creeping vines and crying girls and Ani DiFranco lyrics in the book’s margins. She was in love with the barista, a boy named Drew who had bored eyes and a safety pin stuck through his left ear, and she was forever hoping that he would ask her about what she was readingThankfully he never did because I don’t think she ever actually read a word of it, but she turned the book into a piece of her own artwork, a time-capsule of her youth and the tireless and hungry persistence for love that would follow her her whole life.IMG_5589The book’s narrator, 33 year old Lucy O’Rourke, is as tireless in her pursuit of love as my seventeen-year-old sister was. Despite her myriad fails and countless rejections Lucy continues to throw herself into destructive relationships, each time falling back on her best friend, Leo for comfort. The intimacy and comfort between Lucy and Leo is clear from the very first sentence of “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had”.

“A perfect day in the city always starts like this: My friend Leo picks me up and we go to a breakfast place called Rick and Ann’s where they make red flannel hash out of beets and bacon, and then we cross the Bay Bridge to the gardens of the Palace of the Fine Arts to sit in the wet grass and read poems out loud and talk about love.”

Houston, in her simplistic prose, is able to convey volumes, not only about Lucy and Leo’s relationship but about Lucy herself in this one tiny sentence.
IMG_5597 In many ways, I’m glad that I hadn’t read this collection of stories until a week ago, because I feel like it came to me (as books often seem to do, don’t they?) at precisely the right time. “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” is as much a story about romantic and platonic loves, loves that destroy or heal or consume, as it is about the love of a place. Much of “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” is simply a love poem about San Francisco. In the last year I have lost three of my best friends to San Francisco, each one tiring of New York’s snow and grit and grind in what seemed a matter of seconds, and disappearing in a blur to build new lives far away from me. Each of these friends represents a very specific time in my ten years as a New Yorker, and watching them go always feels like closing a much-beloved chapter.   IMG_5628 When Mo announced to me last week that she would be moving to San Francisco in only a few day’s time I had just picked up Waltzing the Cat. I cried because I would miss her, because I was happy for her, because ten years does feel like quite a long time to be in one place, and that night I read “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” four times.

I got drunk on the city at first the way some people do on vodka, the way it lays itself out as if in a nest of madronos and eucalyptus, the way it sparkles brighter even than the sparkling water that surrounds it, the way the Golden Gate reaches out of it, like fingers, toward the wild wide ocean that lies beyond.

I found immense comfort in reading about Lucy’s budding relationship with her new surroundings, not only because it allowed me to picture more fully the new lives of my friends, but also because it reminded me of my own love affair with New York, with Brooklyn, which is ongoing and ever-changing. This place destroys and rebuilds me on a daily–on an hourly basis, and I am deeply in love with it. This is my Valentine to Brooklyn and to all of you. Happy Valentine’s Day.

IMG_5577 “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” Red Flannel Hash
Makes 4 large servings
Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 pound fingerling potatoes (I found purple ones!)
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 clove of minced garlic
  • 1 large yellow onion chopped fine
  • 2 medium beets
  • 1 smoked ham hock, shredded, or 1 pound of bacon, cut into chunks (or corned beef or brisket–whatever you like)
  • 4 springs thyme
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste

IMG_5636 Directions:

Peel your beets and cut them into 1/2 inch cubes. Place them in a steamer basket over boiling water and steam them until they’re tender (about 8-10 minutes). If you don’t have a steamer basket you can place them in boiling water for about 5 minutes or until they yield to a form, they will lose some color but that’s okay. While your beats are steaming place peel and cube your potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes. Melt butter in a cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet and add minced garlic, shredded ham hock, and chopped onion and cook over low heat. Once your beats are steamed, add them to the skillet along with all of the potatoes and 4 sprigs of thyme. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring often. If you feel like the potatoes aren’t softening put a lid over the skillet for 5 minutes, the steam with help them soften.
IMG_5649Now comes the part where you poach the eggs. People are always very scared of egg-poaching, but fear not, I’m here to show you that it’s actually very easy. First, fill a sautee pan or skillet with water (I like to use these instead of a deep sauce pan because the egg doesn’t have as far to fall). Add 1/4 cup of vinegar (this helps the whites firm and adds a nice flavor to boot). Do not let your water come to a boil. To poach an egg you want your water very hot but not boiling, or even simmering. You want it to be at that moment where all of those bubbles are forming at the bottom of the pan and steam is rising from the surface. Crack your egg into a ramekin, and create a whirlpool in the water with a spoon. Gently lower your egg into the water and let it cook for about 20 seconds. After 20 seconds you can start very gently nudging the whites up around the yolk. If the egg is sticking to the bottom of the pan just use a spatula to loosen it. Cook for about 4 minutes–the whites should look cooked but you should still be able to see the yolk wiggling around inside. Lift out with a slotted spoon, place on a paper towel to drain excess water, season with salt and pepper and serve on top of your red flannel hash. If you feel like you need some extra support, let The Breakfast Bachelor guide you through poaching. Our styles differ slightly but he makes a beautiful poached egg (and also he’s adorable).
IMG_5646If you enjoy reading Yummy Books be sure to follow along on Twitter, Facebookor Instagram. If there’s a literary food scene you want to see come to life be sure to leave me a comment and let me know!

And The Winner Is…

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contest

Commenter #94, Miss Eboni Booth! I will be emailing you shortly with details, Eboni!

I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had the last 5 days reading all of your amazing comments, and finally hearing from many of you who have been reading Yummy Books for years but have never commented! If you didn’t win, don’t despair, I have lots more fun giveaways coming down the pike (and more literary meals, too!). Stay tuned!

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